Cancer made me wake up and realize the bigger picture of life. It has brought me to my purpose - to help survivors recover from cancer and to help rebuild their immunity, make healthy lifestyle changes, and to help prevent recurrence. Cancer taught me how strong I actually am, how to face my fears, and ultimately how important overall health is. There is no life to live without your health and well-being!
My story is unique. I didn’t have symptoms of cancer. I didn’t have any medical issues I was dealing with. And to my knowledge, there were no cancer genes in my family. In fact, I would have never found my cancer if it wasn’t for an eye-opening dream I had about my mother. Buckle up, friends, I am about to take you on a journey that you would never believe. It will strengthen your faith and remind you there is something bigger than all of us out there.
At the end of 2016, at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Non-Hodgkin’s Large Diffuse B-Cell Lymphoma. The occurrences in the year leading up to my diagnosis very much played a part in my discovery of the cancer.
About 1-1/2 years prior to my diagnosis, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer and was given 6 weeks to live. This was a shock because my mother, although having undergone severe stress in her life, was all about nutrition and leading a healthy lifestyle. My husband and I moved her into our home, and with the help of family, we took care of her until the end. She ended up living 6 months, rather than 6 weeks. She was a fighter down to her last breath.
As a 30-year-old at the time, a few months into marriage, and never really experiencing illness or seeing severe illness firsthand, this was a momentous event in my life. Taking care of my mom full-time while she struggled with and died of this terrible disease brought to me stress, trauma, and tragedy. I was in a constant fight or flight mode. A total nightmare.
About 6 months after my mom passed, my husband and I were trying to have a baby, but nothing was working. After many tests and MRIs, my doctors at Northwestern Hospital found a large pituitary tumor at the base of my brain. It needed to be removed immediately because it was impairing my eyesight. And by immediately, I mean the following week. I flew to Boston and had my tumor removed where thankfully they confirmed it was benign. It was a whirlwind of events. Especially stressful because it occurred so soon after my Mom’s death. I began to heal, thinking that the worst was over, thinking it was now my time to begin a new chapter in my life. I thought the barriers and obstacles in my life had been removed and I could now move forward and have kids. Boy, was I ever wrong!
Another 6 months went by and in the week of the first anniversary of my Mom’s death, I dreamt of her. In my dream, I was taking a shower and my mom was in the bathroom too. We were chit-chatting like mothers and daughters do. I remember we were talking about the Kardashians and laughing. Then, I exited the shower and was brushing my hair and with each brushstroke my hair started falling out. This was jarring. While still in the dream, I remember feeling stunned and began to panic. My mother then started to lead me down a dark pathway of some sort and I followed. I remember feeling very resistant, saying “no, no, no, I can’t” and feeling absolutely terrified. I woke up sweating and felt as though I had pulled something in my shoulder.
Well, the shoulder pain didn’t subside. After a few weeks went by, I made an appointment for my annual physical exam and had the doctor check my shoulder out. I remember I walked into my primary doctor’s office and jokingly said “I just want to be sure I don’t have cancer or anything” and laughed. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the pain. I was 32, active, worked out every day, and ate healthily so what could be wrong? I didn’t feel invincible, but I felt like I had control over my health. I felt as though I was doing everything “right." But after some general bloodwork, my doc called me concerned that I had a possible blood clot.
After a few X-rays and tests on a Saturday morning, I was told I had 4 blood clots in my left arm and a massive tumor in my chest. It measured 10cm x 10cm and it was pressing on my heart. I needed it biopsied ASAP. Within 2 weeks, I was told I had cancer. That moment changed my life forever. I will never ever forget it.
I spiraled and wondered whether this was all a sick joke? I can’t have cancer, my mom just died of cancer! This can’t be happening, I’m only 32 and my life is supposed to just be starting. All the questions started bubbling up: Am I going to die? Do I need chemo? Will I lose my hair? How is this real?
It was one of the most surreal moments in my life. After seeing my mom go through cancer, recovering from my pituitary tumor, and now this? Unimaginable!
My incredible oncologist, and my ray of hope in all the darkness, held my hand and walked me through the process of cancer, chemotherapy, and my next few years. I remember telling her “I am only 32, I want to have babies, how can this be happening?” It felt like an out of body experience, like a movie I was watching play out. I underwent so many tests to see where the cancer had spread: bone marrow extractions, MRIs, CTEs, you name it. It was a blur of events I barely got through. I remember telling myself one day after being in the hospital enduring test after test: “this is just the beginning - you better dig deep to gain the strength needed to deal with what’s coming your way." Thankfully, the cancer didn’t spread beyond my lymph nodes and tumor. I was declared Stage 2.
A week later, I underwent IVF in case chemo destroyed my egg supply; that was my fertility plan. Within a day or two of my egg retrieval, I left my work Christmas party early and checked into the hospital for my first round of chemo. This was so bizarre to the extreme; one day I was growing eggs and potential life within my body and the next, I was destroying everything with chemo. Quite the contradiction. I underwent 6 rounds of inpatient chemo, 5 days (each round) on a continuous drip, with 12 days between hospital stays.
I went into chemo as confident, strong, and as positive as I could be. I was ready to face this war but was also incredibly scared of the unknown. I really learned I needed to have a positive attitude through my journey because I could only depend on myself. This was happening to me and no one else could be brave for me. It had to come from me authentically. I had to believe the outcome would be good regardless of my mother’s experience with cancer.
As I endured chemo round after round, there was a sense of irony that popped up. You see, I was a caregiver before I was a cancer patient. And while taking care of my mother, there were so many things that I didn’t understand: her emotions, reactions, rationale, and perspective. She held everything in and never really broke down in front of me. I realized now, as the patient, that I was doing the same thing: holding things in, being strong, not wanting to worry all my loved ones. I related to her more in those moments than I ever have in my entire life. Except she wasn’t there to see it.
Looking back, I realize how incredibly lucky I was that I found my cancer early enough. If I had waited to see my doctor, I know 100% I wouldn’t have been so lucky. I started to really understand and learn that prevention and early detection is key to survival. Then, I also began to wonder: did my mom save my life? Without that dream, I would have never gone to the doctor’s office. At the time, I had no symptoms, but I was silently ill. The love a mother has for her child reached me in a special way. I do believe it saved my life. I took care of her during her cancer battle and now she took care of me. Because of that, I am now 5 years cancer free, I have 2 beautiful girls with my husband, and a successful cancer survivorship health coaching business. I thank my mom every day for showing me my path through that dream. It allowed me to be alive, experience motherhood, and live my most true self.
Connect with Michelle on her website and Instagram @revival.health.wellness
As much as I hate cancer, my diagnosis was a breakthrough I didn't wish for. I believe it didn't happen to me, but For me, and in many ways, my life has changed for the better.
A cancer diagnosis encourages us to know both the fragility and hopes of life, and with that knowledge to live most fully.